SA Govt’s historic millstone

Posted on October 31, 2020


Government claims to have united labour, business and organised civil society behind its “new plan” to reverse economic decline has triggered considerable — and justified — cynicism in much of the trade union movement.  Civil service unions, denied their agreed to and budgeted for pay rises, are especially aggrieved.  

“More empty words” is a common refrain and not only from within labour.  With warnings of a humanitarian crisis looming, a timely comment arrived:  “If wishes were dinners, the hungry would eat.”

And, with the World Bank effectively demanding cuts in the state wage bill, the labour movement could, once again, point to the bloated and very expensive political bureaucracy.  South Africa still has perhaps the largest and one of the most highly paid cabinets in the world.  At the same time, there is a shortage of generally low-paid essential workers such as nurses and teachers.
But little is likely to be done about this.  Whenever politicians find themselves in a tight corner, usually of their own making, they tend to employ three basic and often interlinked tactics:  the blame game, the pie in the sky gambit and an appeal to patriotism.  We’ve seen and heard it all all before and we have had another hefty dose delivered over recent weeks.

It came in the form of what President Cyril Ramaphosa dubbed an “historic milestone”, otherwise known as the “ambitious social compact for economic recovery”.  That an economic recovery is needed is beyond doubt, but the blame is being directed largely at the Covid-19 virus that seems to have crossed our borders in February.  

However, the economy was already in dire straits by that time.  And it was battered further by the often inept, knee-jerk lockdown reaction to it.  But unlike tuberculosis and other epidemics that annually infect and kill many thousands of mainly poor people, Covid-19 has infected everyone from presidents to paupers.

At that level, we are indeed “all in it together”, although fatalities occur mainly among the elderly and among those with co-morbidities, especially diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  But all of us are not — any more than this latest coronavirus strain — to blame for the current economic crisis.

The crisis predates the pandemic, is more complex than the advent of a novel virus, and shows no signs of easing.  Now, for all the talk of new plans, investments and “job opportunities” — seen widely as part of “pie in the sky” promises — there are no signs of any really new initiatives.

So, once again, the tired old call to patriotism is trundled out, but under a slightly new slogan:  Buy Local.  Back in 2001 it was a R60 million “Proudly South African” campaign headed by marketing man Martin Feinstein and talkshow host, Tim Modise that became, by 2010, unashamedly “Buy South African”.  

The Feinstein/Modise Proudly show received an initial input of R7 million from the department of trade and industry (DTI).  At the time, I wrote that this seemed ironic since the DTI was generally held responsible for allowing the flood of cheaper imports that crippled so much local industry.

What seemed doubly ironic then was the fulsome support given by Ebrahim Patel, then general secretary of the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union and now trade and industry minister.  The garment industry was one of the first and hardest hit by cut-price imports.  It has not recovered.

Despite concerns voiced at the time by several leading trade unionists, the labour movement was effectively co-opted.  Cosatu president Willie Madisha and National Council of Trade Unions general secretary, Cunningham Ngcukana were appointed to the Proudly SA board.  But even they admitted to being worried that the campaign would become a “simply Buy SA” project.

Then, as now, most trade unionists were aware that such appeals to patriotism over price have never worked anywhere they have been tried;  that they attempt to shift blame to the working class and the poor.  Before Proudly SA was launched, the unions had argued that the stress should be on not importing goods from countries that did not adhere to labour standards — on wages and conditions — at least on a par with those in South Africa.

This was an argument for truly fair, although still free, trade.  Gwede Mantashe, now minister of mines and then general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was also worried.  A simple “Buy SA” drive could, he feared,  “encourage xenophobia”.

What particularly worried the labour movement at the time was that government stressed that Proudly SA was “not anti-imports”. This put the onus on consumers.  Rich and poor alike were being told that they had to prove their patriotism by their purchases.

For all their misgivings, the unions in 2001 maintained that “it is better that [we] are on board”;  they would continue the arguments from within.  They probably did.  Just as certainly, they lost — and lapsed largely into silence, interspersed with occasional complaints about unfair competition.

Times have changed:  the combined civil service unions, including members of ANC-allied Cosatu, will challenge the government in court on December 2 over their unpaid pay rise.  And Ramaphosa’s claim of a patriotic front rings somewhat hollow:  it did not include the second largest labour federation, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).

Saftu has also made it abundantly clear that it and its affiliated unions are solidly opposed to “making the working class pay” by continuing with liberal — “business friendly” — economic policies.  Something, somewhere, will have to give.

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